The Red River Valley Fair of 2021 reminded me that our fairgrounds are badly in need of investment and improvement. To be clear, I love the FM-area and have made it my home for a reason, but my adolescence in Minot spoiled me when it comes to the State Fair, and our fairgrounds in West Fargo is one area that just doesn’t measure up. The North Dakota State Fairgrounds is a fine example of what a fairground should be compared to our site here.
- The Red River Valley Fairgrounds has no green space available to visitors. At the North Dakota State Fairgrounds in Minot, there is plenty of green space where families can throw down a blanket, enjoy some fair food and watch an act on a free stage.
- The Red River Valley Fairgrounds is not welcoming. For the majority of people entering the Fair from Main Avenue, you're greeted with a 40-year-old chainlink fence with barbed wire around the top to keep people out of Bonanzaville. The North Dakota State Fairgrounds' fence is, in many places, disguised by trees and foliage, and accented by a decorative arch marking the entrance. There is no formal entrance at the RRV Fairgrounds.
- There are no trees on the Red River Valley Fairgrounds (other than Bonanzaville, which does not participate in the fair in any meaningful way and is managed as a separate attraction), which means no shade, and also, no shelter from the wind, which makes the fair often feel like a dusty, wind-blown wasteland. The North Dakota State Fairgrounds has a long, tree-lined lane that runs right through the center of the grounds, as well as many trees on other parts of the grounds that are accessible to fairgoers.
- The Red River Valley Fairgrounds has a rundown, antiquated grandstand, the only place on the grounds where concerts by national acts can be held, and even then, the setup is far from ideal. The North Dakota State Fairground has a brand-new grandstand, built about 10 years ago, and also an indoor facility (the All Seasons Arena) where large concerts for several thousand people can be held indoors, plus conventions and trade shows.
- The Red River Valley Fair's overall location is terrible. It's far from hotels and restaurants, located on the edge of a rundown, industrial-looking part of town. The North Dakota State Fairgrounds is on the river with hotels and restaurants literally across the street.
Our fair, in the largest metro area in North Dakota, is routinely overshadowed in scope, size, and execution by the State Fair in a city half the size.
Considering the potential cost, I assume there's zero practical chance that the Red River Valley Fair is gonna pack up the entire grounds and move to a more suitable site after all these years (although they did just that with the Nebraska State Fair about 10 years ago), so it seems like the only solution is to dramatically improve what we have. Green space. Trees. Beautification. Modernize. Lose the barbed wire.
I have communicated this same feedback to four of the Red River Valley Fair’s general managers over the years, including the new CEO, Cody Cashman, but so far, every fair is the same. This year, I showed up on a Saturday afternoon and I was surprised to discover there was barely anybody there. Disappointing.
Perhaps it’s the unusually large fair board that prevents things from getting done. In 1974, the Red River Valley Fair had 16 board members. Today, there are more than 50 board members plus an executive committee. Most state fairs in Midwest states like ours have around 20 board members.
I wonder if we’ll ever get to the place where we face the hard, expensive truth… getting people to come to our fair and support our community with their dollars is about more than who’s playing in the grandstand or what special they’re running for gate admission and carnival rides. It’s about making the fair a pleasant place to be. Sitting in the blazing sun on a 120-degree tarmac and trying not to smell the dumpsters while you’re eating your fair food doesn’t do the trick. The only thing that will fix it is investment.
Troy Larson lives in Fargo.
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